What Cooking Shows Taught Me About Copywriting

Just like copywriting, cooking stands at the intersection of art and science—and that means that a curious copywriter can learn a thing or two from great cooks.

Chef in restaurant kitchen
Source: Michael Browning, via Unsplash

If you’re anything like me, you like to spend your free time binge-watching cooking shows while eating microwaved nachos for dinner. (Come on, I know I’m not the only one who does this.) And while these shows have tried valiantly to teach me how to make homemade mayonnaise or what an amuse-bouche is, I’ve learned a far more valuable lesson. I’ve learned how to be a better copywriter.

You see, cooking and writing aren’t all that different. As creative fields, both require passion and inspiration, not to mention diligence and fine attention to detail. Chefs and copywriters alike start with a few raw ingredients (be it veggies and grains, or a blank page and firm grasp of language and grammar). Both can also benefit from a decent recipe (for us writers, this is a clear pitch or assignment to sink out teeth into).

But until the Food Network returns my calls about my idea for a new show (Iron Copywriter America—I’m sure it’d be a hit), us brooding writers will have to settle for picking up tips from the best chefs out there. Here are the three most important lessons I’ve learned about copywriting from watching countless hours of cooking shows.

1. We eat with our eyes first

Delicious-looking dessert
Source: Mantra Media, via Unsplash

Presentation matters. Anyone who’s ever watched Gordon Ramsay chew out a contestant on Hell’s Kitchen for their sloppy plating knows that. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a cooking show judge say “we eat with our eyes first”… Well, I might be able to afford a better cliché. But, as cheesy as the statement is, it rings true for both food and copy.

Think about the last few articles you’ve clicked on. Chances are, before you got down to the meat of the matter, you made a decision (consciously or otherwise) based on what you saw at first glance. The headline, just like the presentation of the plate, either draws the audience in or it doesn’t. Once that first bite (or click) is taken, an unappealing dish can still a fussy eater make, even if the contents is perfectly wholesome. A solid, indigestible block of text does not invite one to dive in. And spelling or grammar mistakes, like evidence of under-cooking, can make you think twice about continuing.

First impressions matter. Spending a few extra minutes polishing a piece of writing before putting it out into the world can dramatically increase its chance of being read. If you can’t present your creations in a way that encourages salivation and dissuades disinterest, it might be time to turn in your apron. Or, you know, your pencil.

2. Don’t use too many ingredients

Throughout high school and college, one lesson was drummed into me time and time again, and that was to be concise in my writing. It turns out, chefs are told pretty much the same thing.

In every episode of The Food Network’s Chopped there’s one chef who’s too eager to use the pantry ingredients. To use every ingredient. Some would throw in the kitchen sink if they could.

What happens when you add too many ingredients? All the flavors start to blend together, and the result is a bland, boring mulch. You’ll encounter a similar problem if you try mixing lots of colorful paints in a pot—unless you were aiming for mud-brown all along.

Now imagine that happening to your writing. Yuck.

It can be tempting to use every literary trick up your sleeve, because more is always better, right? Wrong. Superfluous imagery, an oversaturation of examples, and dispensable details can clutter your writing until it becomes an unintelligible mess. Word vomit is no more appealing than actual vomit.

Editing is an art that both copywriters and chefs must master. Sometimes, a few of your great ideas don’t make it into the finished product—and that’s okay. You can always save them until you find a place that they’ll truly shine. Chefs have sous chefs to help refine the work they put out. Us copywriters have a talented team of content strategists instead.

3. Go back to the basics

Okay, this lesson is intuitive—but it definitely bears repeating. You can’t perfect your Bearnaise sauce before you can chop an onion. The same goes for writing. There’s a reason we learn the basics of language and grammar before we’re taught the intricacies of semi-colons, metaphors, and conjunctive adverbs.


Basic cooking ingredients and equipment
Source: Todd Quackenbush, via Unsplash

One of the worst offenses I’ve seen on the hit show Top Chef is lack of seasoning. If you use your kitchen from more than microwaving nachos, you’re probably familiar with the use of salt and pepper—almost every dish requires at least a little sprinkle. You can use the most flavorful ingredients in the world, but without the most basic seasoning, Padma Lakshmi might still wind up asking you to pack your knives and go.

The difference between good copywriting and great copywriting can be something big, but it can also be something as seemingly small as basic grammar and sentence structure. Even the best ideas can be overshadowed by shoddy syntax.  Little mistakes don’t seem so little when they have the potential to lose your client his or her credibility as a thought leader. That’s why we take quality control so seriously here at MarketSmiths. We don’t let anything leave our copywriting kitchen without a thorough seasoning and taste-test first.

The reviews are in. Mediocre copy can be as bad for your business as an undercooked dish is for your stomach.  To ensure your copywriting is always cooked to perfection, get in touch today.


Written by: Caroline Harrington

Samantha McLaren

Samantha McLaren

Having worked as a ghost tour guide for five years, Samantha knows how to get a reaction using only words. Hailing from bonny Scotland, she spent years gathering weird, eclectic experience (from laboratory assistant to radio DJ to Sunday school teacher) before finding her true calling–writing. She came to New York to see what MarketSmiths could teach her, and never left. Copywriter by day, amateur horror writer by night, she has a passion for words and is drawn to the strange and unusual.

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